How to make exhibitions catalysts for group interaction

July 12th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Minda BorunIn this guest post, Minda Borun, long-time director of research and evaluation at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, draws on earlier reports about the NSF-funded Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC). While dating back more than 10 years, this work is as relevant as ever for those designing exhibitions that stimulate the conversations we know are an important part of learning.

Exhibits are catalysts for encouraging group interaction. People bring their personal histories to their encounters with exhibits, they talk with one another – and that is how learning happens. We know this intuitively – and over the years, we’ve also gathered considerable evidence about characteristics of exhibition design that support and encourage this outcome.

In 1992, the Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC) started working on the Family Science Learning Project (NSF/ESI #9355504) to systematically test and refine our understanding of the learning behavior of the visiting unit characteristic of most museums: the small group. We identified seven characteristics of exhibits that our observations and collective experience suggested were associated with what we called “family-friendly” exhibits.

  • Multi-Sided  - Family can cluster around the exhibit
  • Multi-User - Interaction allows for several sets of hands or bodies
  • Accessible - Comfortably used by children and adults
  • Multi-Outcome - Observation and interactions are sufficiently complex to foster group discussion
  • Multi-Modal - Appeals to different learning styles and levels of knowledge
  • Readable - Text is arranged in easily understood segments
  • Relevant - Provides cognitive links to visitors’ existing knowledge and experience

Mechanics Maze, one of the "family friendly" exhibits in Kid ScienceThese features apply to any small group, not just families. The model has also been found to apply to programs by substituting “comprehensible” for “readable.”

Each of the PISEC partner museums – The Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, New Jersey State Aquarium (now called the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences), and Philadelphia Zoo – added a new component that embodied these characteristics to an existing exhibit. Our results were impressive: In each museum, we saw a measurable increase in active family learning. After the publication of the results of this study (Borun et al., 1998), the PISEC museums and others went on to use these “seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits) in the creation of new exhibitions. At the Franklin Institute, for example, the seven characteristics guided design of Kid Science (above), an exhibition for families with children ages five to eight, which opened in 2001. Prototypes of the interactives were extensively tested to be certain that they appealed to this age group and communicated their messages – and that design reflected those characteristics we knew were likely to be catalysts for group interaction. In our summative evaluation, we found that Kid Science engaged families longer and more actively than any other exhibit in the museum.

Sea Cave exhibit at Lookout Cove, Bay Area Discovery MuseumOther museums – like the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito – have also applied these principles.  Justine Roberts wrote about one of these exhibitions in her ExhibitFiles case study of Lookout Cove (left).

The PISEC group has since gone on to extend our experimentation to programs, including museum/community partnerships for underserved families (reported in our latest publication, In Their Own Voices: Museums and Communities Changing Lives).

It is important for museums to be facilitators of family exchange and group learning, not obstacles. PISEC’s findings offer important insights and guidance for those designing new exhibits.

Find out more

  • Borun, M., Cleghorn, A., and Garfield, C. (1995). Family learning in museums: A bibliographic review. Curator, 38(4), 262–270.
  • Borun, M., Chambers, M., and Cleghorn, A. (1996). Families are learning in science museums. Curator, 39(2), 124–138.
  • Borun, M., Chambers, M., Dritsas, J., and Johnson, J. (1997). Enhancing family learning through exhibits. Curator, 40(4), 279–295.
  • Borun, M., & Dritsas, J. (1997). Developing family-friendly exhibits. Curator, 40(3), 178–196.
  • Borun, M., Dritsas, J., Johnson, J., Peter, N. E., Wagner, K., Fadigan, K., Jangaard, A., Stroup, E., and Wenger, A. (1998). Family learning in museums: The PISEC perspective. Washington D.C.: The Association of Science Technology Centers.
  • Borun, Minda. (2002). Object-Based Learning and Family Groups in Scott Paris (ed.) Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey
  • Borun, Minda, Barbara Martin Kelly, Lisa Jo Rudy, (2011). In Their Own Voices: Museums and Communities Changing Lives, Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.

One Response to “How to make exhibitions catalysts for group interaction”

  1. Wendy Pollock Says:

    ExhibitFiles member Joanna Fisher wrote in this blog last September about how her Salt Lake City group uses the Framework for Assessing Excellence in exhibitions (Serrell et al., 2006) to critique exhibitions together. The four main aspects of exhibitions called out in that framework: comfort, engagement, reinforcement, meaning. PISEC’s seven characteristics of “family-friendly” exhibitions align well and together the two provide a practical guide to critique. Thank you for reminding us of this important work, Minda.